The practice of systems thinking is the practice of thinking about the world through the concept of a system (Checkland, 1981). It can help us to make complex dynamic interactions more intelligible and can inform wise initiatives and appropriate actions. The practice of looking at a set of participants and their relationships and defining them as a ‘system’ creates a framework within which we can ask deeper questions about the structures and behaviours that influence these relationships.

By defining a system’s boundary we are not isolating this ‘system in question’ from all others, but we are creating a frame to explore how it might be related to the wider systems that contain it. We may also realize that our ‘system in question’ might itself be made up of a series of other subsystems.

Too often systems thinking is equated with a set of very specific methodologies, like the drawing of influence diagrams, feedback loops, and stock and flow systems models. These are all useful tools in the toolbox of systems thinking, but to equate them with whole-systems thinking itself would be analogous to equating a set of brushes, an easel and a canvas with the art of painting. More than a set of tools, systems thinking is an art form of creatively dancing with complexity that has the power to transform us and our world. It can make us see ourselves, and our world, with different eyes.

As the poet David Whyte observed: prose is about words describing an experience, whereas poetry elicits an experience itself. So let me offer you the poet Thich Nhat Hanh’s take on whole-systems thinking:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in the sheet of paper. The logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can see that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here — time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this paper. That is why I think the word interbe should be in the dictionary. ‘To be’ is to interbe. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper would be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper’ elements. And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements, like mind, logger, sunshine, and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1988: 3–5)

Reprinted from The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajñaparamita Sutra with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California,

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a great example of seeing and understanding whole systems. Starting with a simple sheet of paper, he offers us a window onto the fundamental interconnectedness of our planetary system, which we are now also beginning to understand through physics, complexity science, ecology and earth systems science. We are participants in a dynamic whole within which we define ourselves and create our reality through our participation in relationships. To be is to interbe.

The Order of Interbeing are the ordained students of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Source)

In many ways, the word ‘interbeing’ describes a shift in the perception of self and other that lies at the heart of co-creating regenerative human cultures and a sustainable human presence on Earth. Transformative innovation for regenerative cultures drives the shift from an industrial growth society, based on extraction and exploitation of natural resources and informed by the ‘narrative of separation’ to a life-sustaining society, based on regenerative agricultural and industrial processes and informed by the ‘narrative of interbeing’.

The word ‘interbeing’ describes the shift towards a new story about humanity’s relationship with the wider community of life and its dependence on the planet’s life support system. Here are some questions we could use to catalyse conversations about this shift in community groups, business boardrooms and government departments:

To what extent is the way we are framing the problem and proposing solutions informed by the ‘narrative of separation’ and how could we reframe them from within the ‘narrative of interbeing’?

How do our real and perceived needs change as we shift from a perspective of separation to a perspective of interbeing?

How do we propose solutions informed by interbeing and evaluate their effect on the wider community of life and the lives of future generations?

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]